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Blather is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle. I could have used any one of many words to denote the nonsense that is still being uttered by British politicians who want the UK to leave the EU. I was tempted to use a crude reference to bovine excrement or an equally unsavoury noun usually associated with a certain part of the male anatomy that comes by the pair.
I caught a segment of the ‘Tonight‘ programme on Irish television earlier in the week in which Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was taking part. Asked what was his problem with the Single Market and the Customs Union, he asserted that they prevent the UK negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries, deals which he was sure would benefit Northern Ireland businesses. When it was pointed out that most of those countries, including those who are members of the Commonwealth, prefer to deal with the UK as part of the much larger EU market, he responded by saying he had recently returned from Egypt where he led a trade mission from Northern Ireland, securing lucrative contracts for Northern Ireland businesses.
I felt like shouting at the screen: “membership of the EU didn’t prevent you doing that, then!”
Also this week, Channel 4 News asked a random sample of English people to mark the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on a map of the island. The results were astonishing, showing that most people have no idea that, for example, the most northern point of the island, Malin Head, is in the Republic. Britons frequently refer to Northerrn Ireland as “Ulster” – I used to do it myself but have carefully avoided doing so in this post. The fact is that the ancient Irish province of Ulster includes Donegal which is in the Republic, to the west of Northern Ireland.
But whilst this week’s controversy has been concentrated on the land border between the UK and the EU, and the implications for the Northern Ireland peace process of any reinstatement of a border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, no-one ought to lose sight of the UK’s east and south coasts with their many ports, from Aberdeen to Southampton, all of which handle traffic between the UK and continental Europe and all of which will need some degree of additional policing if the “best deal for Britain” that David Davis is so eager to achieve falls short of the existing arrangements. And then there are the 16 regional airports*, as well as Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead.
I am only an ordinary citizen, although I did once dabble in local politics and even stood as a candidate for the European parliament, but I cannot comprehend how anyone could imagine that any “deal” could be better than the one we already have. I make no apology for repeating again what I said before the referendum, here, and, afterwards, here, and have continued to say in the period since.
As this comprehensive Facebook post from Jon Danzig at Reasons2Remain makes clear, the months of uncertainty, negotiations, and costly preparations that the UK has been forced to endure, and will continue to endure through the proposed two year “transition period”, are utterly pointless if the deal that is struck at the end of the process looks anything like the one we already have. And, if it doesn’t, then businesses that rely on fast freight transfers between the UK and EU will be hampered and their customers, the citizens of Britain, will pay the price.
*For anyone interested the 16 are, in alphabetical order, Birmingham; Blackpool; Bournemouth; Bristol; Cardiff; East Midlands; Exeter; Humberside; Leeds Bradford; Liverpool; Luton; Manchester; Newcastle; Norwich; and Teesside.
British blogger Clive tells it the way it is, prompted by a cartoon in, of all places, The Times. Like me, Clive is of an older generation (I think he is a few yearss younger than me) utterly perplexed, not only by the result of last year’s referendum, but by the general perception that it was people of our generation who swung it in favour of leave.
The only explanation I’m able to come up with for that is that we have had 40 years of being bombarded by fake news about the EU from the right wing media.
I can’t leave you to Clive’s thoughts without adding how horrified I was to see that Corbyn’s equally out of touch crowd voted earlier this week to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.
Look at these two headlines. One is from the Irish Sun, the other from the UK edition of the same newspaper. They demonstrate how the paper’s owner panders to the prejudices of its readers in the two nations. (Both titles are owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.)
Behind the headlines is an unpleasant truth: no-one, on either side, wants to see a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. But it’s impossible for the British government to reconcile that fact with the demand, from some of those who voted to leave the EU, that the UK should control its own borders.
As I pointed out last week, the only possible way out of this mess is to admit that controlling this particular border is impossible. And, given the existence of the Channel Tunnel and the frequency of Ro-Ro ferry operations between the UK and continental Europe, controlling those borders is equally impractical and undesirable.
It follows that Britain must remain in the Customs Union.
The idea of dismantling the existing arrangements in order to put in place something that is, in practice, exactly the same, is an appalling waste of everyone’s time and patience, including that of the editors of The Sun on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Given that a key #Brexit topic of the moment is the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, I am resurrecting another old post.
On BBC Newsnight last night Kirsty Wark challenged Bertie Ahern to say that he and the present Taosiach, Leo Veradker, would welcome a hard border. Obviously he would not do so. No one in Ireland, or anywhere in the EU, wants a hard border. It is only the British government and the hard core of its EU hating citizens who seem incapable of understanding that you either have a hard border or no border.
The rationale of the decision to leave was that Britain wanted to control its borders. Logically that must include the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
But it goes deeper than that. If Britain exits the customs union it is not only the mainland border that will need to have custom controls installed. They will need to be installed at all the ports that serve routes between Britain and the EU. Dover is the busiest of these, but Southampton, Hull, Immingham, Felixstowe and, of course, Hollyhead are also important points of entry and exit. Wikipedia lists 70 major ports around the coast of England and Wales. And that is to ignore the many airports that serve air borne transport between Britain and the rest of Europe.
The BBC regularly points out the magnitude of the problems resulting from the referendum result, including that of policing all of these points of entry if Britain is to gain full control of her borders. The usual response from those who want #Brexit at any price is to call the BBC out for being too negative about the subject.
Others seem to believe that it will all come right in the end because the EU do not want to see the erection of trade barriers between the UK and the other 27 members. To which I ask the simple question: what is the point of spending two years negotiating the UK’s departure from the Single Market and the Customs Union in order to create a new relationship that replicates what has been negotiated away?
If it looks like a customs union and operates like a customs union then it bloody well IS a customs union and all that heartache, all those hours of bureaucrats’ time expended, the uncertainty disrupting British business, are a criminal waste when there are so many far more important problems the government and its employees ought to be tackling.
A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.
You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”
Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.
Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.
And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.
From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.
Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.
What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?
I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.
I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.
“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]
Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.
All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.
Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.
Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.
The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.
Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.
I don’t generally give much credence to conspiracy theories. But in these times of “fake news” and “alternative facts” it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid them. George Monbiot is a journalist and commentator that I trust. He references all his claims to well documented real facts. So when he writes about a long term plan to undermine the European Union and promote the agenda of corporate America I believe him.
And the tragedy is that, in order to achieve their aim, this small but powerful group have conned the most disadvantaged citizens of both Britain and America into supporting their aim through the kind of deception of which the late Paul Daniels would be proud. Misdirection and sleight of hand were used in Britain to convince people living in its most deprived communities that their best interests would be served by divorcing themselves from the international body that has provided peace, prosperity and slow but steady advances in human rights over the last 40 years.
The same droit de main was employed by Donald Trump to convince the residents of rust belt USA that he would “clear the swamp” and bring jobs back to the homeland.
Of course, there are conspiracy theories at the other end of the political spectrum, too. A shocking number of Americans still believe that global warming is not the result of the burning of fossil fuels. Encouraged by the same think tanks that Monbiot exposes in his Guardian article, they choose instead to believe that, along with LBGT rights and Obamacare, it is all part of a left wing plot to bring about the Socialist takeover of America.
If history tells us anything it is that the last 150 or more years have witnessed an incessant battle between those who want to see the greatest good for the greatest number and those who want to use the advance of knowledge as a tool for their own enrichment. In Britain the former was traditionally represented by the Liberal and Labour Parties, backed by the Trade Union and co-operative movements, whilst the latter was always the motivating force of the Tory Party. In America, the Democrats, backed by the Labor unions, on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other, fulfilled similar roles.
Differences within each of these political movements were concerned more with the pace of change than with the direction it was taking, with moderates tending to favour gradual progress, fearing the damage that might be caused by too rapid an advance.
Education and the value of work
Fundamental to both ends of the political spectrum is a belief in the importance of education and the value of work. The difference is that the right seeks to keep down the cost of labour; not just the rates of pay, but the additional cost of providing training, health care, holidays, pensions, protection from potential work place hazards and sick pay. It also abhors attempts to protect consumers from any possible harm that might arise from the use of the products of labour, including over-pricing. The left campaigns for better pay and conditions for workers and greater protection for consumers.
By taking the lead in establishing rules and regulations that address the concerns of workers and consumers, the European Union is seen by the right as placing obstacles in the way of business success. The Obama administration in the USA is viewed similarly by Trump and the GOP.
And yet UKIP in the UK, and Trump in the USA, managed to convince people, not only that these regulations were responsible for the loss of traditional jobs, but also that both Brussells and Washington were in thrall to corporate lobby groups. You might be excused for concluding that these claims are mutually exclusive. In fact they are not. It is, rather, a question of which trend holds supremacy at any given point in time. Labour unions and human rights activists lobby for greater regulation whilst bodies representing big business lobby against such advances.
But corporations respond to increased regulation by moving manufacturing to less well regulated jurisdictions, thereby reducing their costs and destroying the traditional jobs of British and American workers . Meanwhile significant numbers of people from those jurisdictions choose to move to the US and the UK in order to take advantage of the many benefits available to the citizens of those countries. Employers in UK and US are happy to give work to foreigners who, being used to poor working conditions, are happy to turn a blind eye to minor infractions of those regulations that protect their British and American counterparts.
Sooner or later, however, as prosperity spreads to those less regulated jurisdictions, similar regulations, protecting the rights of workers and consumers, will be introduced. That is the only way that jobs might return to deprived communities in the North of England or the American rust belt. Removing the hard won rights of workers and consumers, the inevitable consequence of Britain’s exit from the EU and Trump’s plethora of EOs, will not do it.
A century and more of progress in human rights has been accompanied by advances in science and engineering that have served to reduce the need for manual labour in most traditional industries. An age in which machines did the work and men enjoyed greater leisure has been predicted since before I was born 75 years ago. And yet the number of people in employment has continued to rise throughout that time (see here for the latest UK employment figures and here for those for the USA). So I have even less faith in the possibility of such predictions coming true than I have trust in conspiracy theories.
There can be no doubt, however, that the nature of work will continue to change, as it has done throughout history. And governments wishing to keep pace with that change need to focus on education and training so as to equip their citizens to meet the challenge.
Notwithstanding any conspiracies dreamed up by big corporations, I remain optimistic that science and engineering will confound the worst predictions of the world’s pessimists. After all, one of the most successful and wealthy corporations the world has ever known – Microsoft – was a tiny operation 40 years ago and no-one back then, except, perhaps, it’s founders, could have imagined the technological revolution for which it has been responsible, or the nature of the hundreds of thousands of of jobs it has created.